Ronald Lee uses 35 years of experience to drive improvement through reliability.
By Michelle Segrest, Contributing Editor
“Even with the best and most modern technology and equipment-monitoring capability, your overall performance and effectiveness is going to be largely dependent on the execution of the organization and its ability to adapt and embrace change,” said Lee, a 35-year veteran of manufacturing competencies, including reliability and maintenance programs for E.I DuPont.
“I understand the ‘people impact’ on performance and profitability. No matter how much money you throw at technology, at some point, you must capture the hearts and minds of the people.”
He accomplishes this by taking time to “understand their world,” he said. “It is important to solicit ideas and input from the front line. When you generate buy-in they become stakeholders, and then they own it. If they own something, you will have a hard time taking it away from them. That’s what makes a program sustainable. They will protect it and develop it.”
It’s important to apply the same rigor to managing the soft stuff as you do the hard stuff, he said. This implies a perfect combination and strategic blend of a strong technical system (relentless waste and variability elimination, quality control and assurance), organizational structure (performance management, continuous-improvement infrastructure), and a strong focus on building a work culture that is open and collaborative (with clear purpose and intense focus).
For three-and-a-half decades, Lee worked in many aspects of the E. I. DuPont manufacturing organization. He started as a mechanical design engineer, then moved to technical services, was an area maintenance supervisor, an HR manager, the production manager, global operations manager, plant manager, and for his final 2.5 years at DuPont he was the corporate director for process safety management (Mechanical Integrity Quality Assurance), reliability, and maintenance.
In this role, Lee and his team partnered with an outside consultant to develop and pilot a holistic approach to transforming reliability and maintenance performance.
The approach was designed and executed around five key elements:
- Hypothesis-driven thinking
- Systematic identification of critical value levers
- Relentless focus on impact with a rigorous prioritization of the biggest value opportunities
- Coaching team members on use of Six Sigma, lean, change management, technical processes
- Use of technical and non-technical tools to overcome long-living adaptive challenges, e.g., top-down communications, leadership coaching, influencing skills.
Since retiring a year ago, Lee hasn’t been idle. He is an industry advisor and international speaker and owns a consulting firm, Performance Operations Consulting LLC. He uses his expertise to help organizations design and execute the right methodology for improving asset productivity. His holistic approach includes assessment, business-case development, change-management strategy, solution design, implementation, and sustainability.
“It’s important to give the front line a voice at the table,” he said. “You can get ideas and input through the use of lean tools, such as problem solving, Kaizen events, and value-stream mapping, to enable the front line to participate in the change required to improve the business. Ownership at all levels of the organization provides higher probability of success.”
Lee earned an athletic and academic scholarship to Southern University in Baton Rouge, LA, where he played college football. His football experience taught him about team building and motivating others to work toward common goals.
As the corporate director for maintenance and reliability with DuPont, Lee also was responsible for process-safety management (mechanical integrity and quality assurance). He and his organization provided direction, guidance, and competency building to help the reliability and maintenance organizations meet corporate and business goals. His responsibilities expanded across approximately 200 manufacturing sites with a footprint greater than $10 billion in assets.
Reliability, maintenance evolution
Lee said he’s seen many changes throughout his 35-year tenure. But some things stay the same.
“Not a lot has changed in terms of fundamental best practices and standards in maintenance and reliability,” Lee said. “In most cases, we evolve through cycles where we re-name an improvement initiative but basically solve and work on the same legacy issues. It’s my perspective that the key differentiator in avoiding working on the same things over and over again is to integrate the assessment and understanding of the organization’s culture.”
Equally important, he said, is the development of solid business cases that will resonate from the front line to the executive office.
“Maintenance is usually viewed by most organizations as a cost generator or a cost burden and not as a profit center,” he said. In Lee’s experience, this is a source of frustration for many companies and maintenance teams.
“Many businesses only go to maintenance when they want to cut costs,” he said. “But the top-tier companies who really do it right know that maintenance favorably influences the company’s bottom line. Equipment that has already failed or is in failure mode can adversely impact cost, environmental, quality, product delivery, hard-hat safety, process safety, and financial performance.”
It’s not always the company’s fault that the reliability and maintenance department does not get the unwavering business support needed to achieve excellence, he stated.
“We must be more patient and diligent in showing the business reasons why we should be doing certain things in terms of maintenance and reliability,” he said. “We should show how new equipment investment will reflect on the bottom line. That’s what the top executives look at—the return on investment and the shareholder value. We must do more than just ask for a new piece of equipment. We must show how this expenditure will meet either an existing and/or emerging business need.”
In 35 years, Lee has seen many tools introduced that have made an impact on reliability and maintenance. There are three, in particular, that he considers “game changers:”
Lean manufacturing and Six Sigma. Lean Six Sigma is all about eliminating waste, variability, and inflexibility in manufacturing processes. “Understand what adds value and eliminate the things that do not add value. Lean manufacturing is a great problem-solving tool that drives creativity and energy through the engagement of every level of the organization.”
Big Data. Automation and software have made a big difference in measuring real-time performance and key process variables, along with predicting equipment failures, Lee stated. “The key to utilizing Big Data is having the expertise to analyze the data and having the organizational discipline to respond in a timely fashion. The cost difference in having an orderly and controlled shutdown to address an equipment problem versus running equipment to failure is 10 times more economical. Make the maximum utilization from the advanced intelligence. Data show that only 10% of organizations fully utilize the new and advanced diagnostic tools.”
Employee Engagement. No matter how fancy and advanced the tools, you still need the right people, and they must be on board and engaged with the program. “I have examples where people have openly stated that they would try and live through the change because they knew leadership would be transitioning in two to three years.”
At one facility, there was a struggle with ongoing equipment failures that caused excessive downtime. The business was growing and more was required of the plant. Lee worked with a team to charter a reliability-and-maintenance-improvement plan that began with a robust planning and scheduling program, defining clear roles and responsibilities, conducting equipment criticality analysis, and giving people access to the knowledge and skills they needed to be successful.
Lee’s team worked with a major consulting business to secure leadership support. “Showing the cost savings was impactful,” Lee stated. “We worked hand-in-hand with the local organization in utilizing the holistic approach and liberated significant capacity increases without the dependency of capital money.”
A cultural analysis shed light on some non-technical issues.
According to Lee, “A shift in the mindsets and behaviors made all the difference. We were able to improve communications and identify priorities. Everyone was involved in the effort and understood what was at stake. We didn’t try to fix everything. We prioritized and focused on the things that most impacted the bottom line. When you tell people what’s in it for them, they typically will align and work toward the same goal.”
For example, the mechanics were not efficient at entering the work history into the computer system. Reliability and maintenance engineers needed the history to determine trends and make predictions for preventive maintenance. But the mechanics openly shared that no one looked at or analyzed the data so they felt that entering the information was a waste of their time.
Management established and institutionalized a managing process where the data were reviewed on an established frequency and findings were shared with the mechanics, as well as with leadership. Addressing this adaptive challenge improved work-order history entry by almost 65% in less than a month.
Reliability vs. maintenance
Lee’s best piece of advice is to understand the difference between reliability and maintenance. Maintenance is what you do after it fails, he said. “How efficient you are at fixing the problem after it fails determines your maintenance effectiveness.”
Reliability is your capability to predict equipment failures and build in mitigating strategies and systems to prevent them, while better meeting business needs. “If you can detect a failure at the early stage, schedule it, and order the parts, you can save almost 10 times as much time and money as if it failed catastrophically,” he stated. “That’s the power of reliability—being able to predict—knowing the equipment and where it is in its life cycle. Reliability is the brains and the strategy to keep it from failing.” MT
Michelle Segrest has been a professional journalist for 27 years. She has covered the industrial processing industries for nine years. If you know of a maintenance and/or reliability expert who is making a difference at their facility, please drop her an email at email@example.com. Ronald Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.